My Croatian and Serbian Vacation

I have just returned from my week long vacation to Croatia via Serbia. Croatia is a beautiful country and it’s definitely a place I want to return some day. Three of us went (all PCVs). Natalie spent the night in Chirpan and we met Shane on the train to Sofia the following morning. We didn’t have our train tickets yet so we headed to the Rila ticket office in the Central Train Station. We were told we could buy round trip tickets to Split, via Belgrade and Zagreb, but we couldn’t until 40 minutes before the train departed. A bit odd, I thought. Bought our tickets and boarded. We were later joined in our compartment by an elderly man in a sharp suit and a plastic comb in his breast pocket (leading me to add to trust such men on “Rules to Live Life By”). He couldn’t speak Bulgarian, only Serbian. This proved to be no problem as the two languages are very close together. Perhaps to the point where I could put that on a resume. Before he even sat down, he showed us pictures of his family and started talking about them. He was a wonderful man and was very excited to show us Serbia’s industrial prowess.

We entered Serbia and Cvetkovic (his name) took care of the border police and customs for us. The Serbian immigrant control was very through, even taking apart part of the air conditioning unit to inspect. It wasn’t too surprising since this was the same rail route taken to smuggle some 1.5M Euro worth of heroin from Bulgaria to Serbia. As we travelled through Serbia to Nish, our friend pointed out all the industrial and commercial advances Serbia has made since the war. We didn’t know what to expect when we got to Serbia. We all thought we were going to passing through a bombed out country and were nervous about intense Anti-Americanism. None of this was the case. We were all genuinely impressed with the infrastructure and people while in Serbia. We also wondered where Serbia got all the money. We figured IMF, WB and USAID. The Serbs we met were some of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered. After Cvetkovic got off and we passed all of his bags through the train window, more people climbed on board. Our compartment was now full. There were two university students going back to school. They were life guards and were waiting for their visa so they could go to Orlando for work. Their English was pretty good. The other man was currently in the Serbian military academy and only spoke Serbian. They were wonderful people. They taught us Serbian and Croatian words and talked about life in Serbia. They kept laughing at us because we shook our head for yes and nodded for no (as per Bulgarian custom). As the train ride wore on (it was nine hours long), the train got increasingly crowded. It turns out it was election day in Serbia and there was no charge to ride the train so people can make it to the polls.

We made it to Belgrade a little behind schedule. Our new friends helped us exchange money and made sure we found our train alright and secure a sleeping car. One of them gave us his number and wanted to show us around Belgrade during our layover on the way back. We thanked them for their kindness and hospitality (they all shared their food on the train ride with us) and headed to Croatia. As we settled in, went out to buy some snacks with our newly exchanged currency. Shane and I stumbled across the pita meso.

It’s just like Bulgarian banitsa, but with meat. It was incredibly tasty. As you can see from the above photo, you can actually see through the paper bag. I’m sure it shaved a few days off my life. The conductor came in to collect payment for the sleeping car. We, however, didn’t have the correct amount and he didn’t have change. We wound up giving him over a 1,000 Serbian Dinar and 10 Euro. We (including the conductor) were chuckling about handing over a fist full of cash and then a 10 Euro bill.

Our passports were checked and stamped early in the morning, around 1 am. We were woken up and gave our documents to a suspicious Serbian police officer. He gave us exit visas and continued down the train. Enough time passed allowing us to fall asleep before the Croatian police came to inspect our documents. We went back to bed and as soon as we got settled, customs came by to inspect our compartment to see if we had anything to declare. When it was all over, we finally went back to sleep and woke up in the capital of Croatia, Zagreb.

We didn’t have a long layover, so we stuck close to the train station. We went over to the Hotel Esplanade

This hotel was built in 1925 and it’s seeped in history. According to the website (and the friendly concierge), the Esplanade has been the heart of social life in Zagreb since it opened and it boosts an impressive list of guests ranging from Charles Lindbergh, Louis Armstrong, and Orson Welles. Several foreign dignitaries have stayed there. The Chancellor of Germany had left a few days before we got there. However, President Bush didn’t stay there since the Secret Service wanted to shut the train station down for two days. The flight crew of Air Force One stayed there instead.

We hopped back on the train and headed South towards the coast. This trip was different since is was full of Brits going to the Dalmatian Coast on holiday. We pulled into Split after noon. Since I left Chirpan, I had been travelling for about 30 hours! As soon as we disembarked, we bombarded by people offering their spare room to tourists. We took a lady up on her offer and spent the night on the second floor of her house. It was a beautiful place and she lived very close to Diocletian’s palace, the main attraction in Split.

The three of us walked around town, exploring the complicated alley ways that make up the Old Town.

The view from above from the clock tower. As you can see, it’s not just a tourist destination but home to Splitians/Spliters/Splitcians (?)

The place was packed with middle aged tourists. You don’t realize how integrated you’ve become into a culture until you leave it. I felt that where was we made moves to meet people, engage them in conversation, try and learn about their culture, the tourists were more inwardly concerned and distracted by touristy crap. But that’s just me. I can already see the skills I’ve learned in the Peace Corps take place outside my host country. Pretty cool.

The following day, we caught a ferry to Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic”. It was a nice, clam ride down there. Just like Split, there were hoards of Dubrovniks waiting at the ferry terminal to offer their free room. We accepted the offer from Edi (“Eddie”). He was quite a character and it seemed we kept bumping into him throughout the night. Dubrovnik was a really cool city and really fun to explore. Shane declared it to be better than Istanbul. Lofty praise. When I go to Turkey, I’ll be able to judge.

Main plaza in Dubrovnik’s Old Town

Dubrovnik Harbor

The harbor during the day

Dubrovnik was an awesome city. It was founded in the 7th century and it was Venice’s main rival. During the Yugoslav war, the city was under siege by the Yugoslav Army (JNA) in late 1991. The major fighting ended in early 1992. The Croatian Army launched an offensive and lifted the siege in mid-1992. The JNA sporadically attacked the city over the next three years. Most of the damage was repaired after the war, according to UNESCO guidelines and and the JNA commanders have been indicted for the senseless shelling of the city. While exploring the city, we bumped into a waiter who wanted to know where we were headed. We wound up talking to him for almost an hour. We mostly talked about the city and Croatian politics. While we stood there, his boss started yelling at him and he ran inside. We didn’t catch what he said, but his boss came over and started speaking French to us. All we understood was “I’m really sorry”. Our new friend came back, but with two shot glasses of rakiya and some sweet wine. He was in trouble for not being a good host! We stood around talking some more. It was really interesting hearing about how much the city changes during the tourist season (a time when I really don’t want to be there, from what he told us!) to surviving the war. That was pretty intense to hear about. We thanked him, and then explored all the back alleys of the city.

The following day, we explored the city some more and then caught a bus to Split. It was a six hour trip and we fell asleep. I was awoken by the ticket guy to show my passport. I was confused and then I discovered we were about to enter Bosnia and Herzegovina! We were only there for 15 minutes or so and didn’t get an entry visa. We made it back to Split and stayed with the family we stayed with the first time. We spent the rest of the day walking around and sitting in bars, people watching. We came across this Anti-American, Anti-NATO graffiti next to an old Yugo. That night, we caught the night train to Zagreb. That was the nicest sleeping car I’ve ever taken! There was real carpet on the floor, the beds were super comfy, we were given a .5L bottle of water and a chocolate on the pillow and woken up to Turkish coffee and a croissant. We had some more time to explore Zagreb and then caught the train to Belgrade. We had a layover in Belgrade, so we explored the city a bit. We tried to find a central park that we could supposedly see most of the sights. We asked around and were given the name and told the best way to get there would be to take a taxi. We weren’t willing to get into the back of a cab in a supposedly hostile country so we made it back to the train station. On the way back, we found these two huge abandoned buildings. It was pretty clear the US Air Force had had something to do with it. It was then that we noticed lots of people staring at us, including police and military police. We left quickly. After a while, Natalie and I left our bags at the train station went back out to see what we could see. This time, we didn’t look like tourists. We strolled around and saw more bombed buildings. We then found the US embassy. It was sealed shut and didn’t look nearly as bad as it did in photos of the riots in February. It was also surrounded by Serbian police with big guns. We didn’t linger and went back to the train station to catch our train home.

That, in a nutshell, was my trip to Croatia and Serbia. More photos are on my Picasa account:

Croatia and Serbia Vacation

One Response to “My Croatian and Serbian Vacation”

  1. Post Peace Corps Road Trip: Balkan Blitzkrieg « Chronicling Bulgaria Says:

    […] 29 The next day, we’ll drive to Dubrovnik, Croatia for a short day trip. As you may remember, I have already been to Dubrovnik but it’s in the […]

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